Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s banter with Singapore Armed Forces soldiers undergoing jungle and survival training in Brunei yesterday suggests that Singapore’s military ties with Taiwan will not be severed anytime soon, despite pressure by China and speculation by political pundits.
A video of Singapore Armed Forces troops telling Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that they are due to be deployed to Taiwan for training in January was recorded at the meeting yesteday, where the PM was heard confirming that the troops will be deployed to Taiwan in January, under Project Starlight.
Curiously, the video, reportedly published by The Straits Times, appears to have been deleted on Youtube a little while after it was posted.
Twitter user Bhavan Jaipragas flagged the deletion of the video on his social media accounts. Just before the video’s removal, Jaipragas had shared the video along with a transcript of what was said in the clip:
— Bhavan Jaipragas 八万 (@jbhavan) October 6, 2017
Jaipragas shared the clip at 4.52pm yesterday. The video was mysteriously deleted less than 20 minutes later, by the time Jaipragas updated that the video has been removed at 5.13pm on the same day.
The video I posted just now, in which Singapore troops tell PM Lee they are scheduled for Taiwan training in January, has been removed.
— Bhavan Jaipragas 八万 (@jbhavan) October 6, 2017
Singapore troops have been going to Taiwan for training over the last 42 years, under Project Starlight – a programme between Singapore and Taiwan that was initiated in 1975 when Singapore’s late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Taiwan’s then premier Chiang Ching-kuo signed a deal to allow Singapore armed forces to train in Taiwan, given troops Singapore’s limited land and airspace.
The project has been closely scrutinised by China since its initiation. China has demanded that Singapore severe ties with Taiwan – which China maintains is a part of sovereign China – in November last year, when nine armoured troop carriers that were en route to Singapore after a military exercise in Taiwan under Project Starlight, were seized in Hong Kong.
Following increasing tensions between Singapore and China, PM Lee and several high profile ministers paid an official visit to China in mid-September. During the trip, PM Lee agreed to increase parliamentary exchanges with China and said:
“Our relationship has progressed, our cooperation had broadened and deepened, and there are many more things which we are doing together now.”
Political observers speculated that Singapore would cease Project Starlight following the successful visit to China, especially after Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said that mutual understanding between Singapore and China are deepening, at a news briefing.
He said that China and Singapore could look forward to a “more mature military relationship” and indicated that this will only be possible if Singapore severes military links with Taiwan:
“China is willing to work with Singapore to create favorable conditions to develop an even more mature military relationship
“I also want to stress here that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China. We resolutely oppose any country having any form of official exchanges with Taiwan or military links.”
Chinese state-run publication, the Global Times, was among influential observers who asserted that it was “inevitable” that Singapore military training in Taiwan would cease soon.
Global Times said the Chinese mainland has tolerated the “Starlight programme” for a long time due to historical reasons. The “illegitimate” nature of this programme means it will be increasingly difficult to carry on.
“At a time when the Tsai Ing-wen administration of Taiwan refused to recognise the 1992 Consensus and Singapore also turned its back on the Chinese mainland, the Starlight programme became conspicuously peculiar. Last September, when Singapore’s armoured vehicles were intercepted in Hong Kong on their way back from Taiwan, this programme was exposed.
“Taiwan wanted to use this cooperation with Singapore to prevent the latter from fully supporting the mainland. The US is fond of seeing Singapore and Taiwan maintain this bond, as both of them are its pawns.
“When cross-Straits relations were stable and Sino-Singaporean ties sound, the Chinese mainland tolerated the programme. However, this programme no doubt damages the one-China principle. The Chinese mainland reserves its right to change its approach to it at any time.
“Singapore has long sensed the short life of this programme, which is why it has leased a large training facility in Australia.”
News that Singapore will continue deploying troops under Project Starlight may pose complications to the Sino-Singapore relationship, and this may be why Straits Times video was deleted yesterday.